In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Joel Barlow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Barlow’s Politics

American Literature Joel Barlow
Patricia F. Tarantello, Victoria Longa
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0020


Joel Barlow (1754–1812), a well-known poet and diplomat, was born to a farming family in Redding, Connecticut. Despite delays in his schooling caused by his parents’ deaths and the American Revolution, he graduated from Yale University as class poet in 1778, delivering his poem The Prospect of Peace at graduation. At Yale, Barlow met like-minded writers, who formed the literary society the “Connecticut Wits,” and published The Anarchiad (1786–1787), a satirical poem on the partisan debates over the Constitution. Barlow earned a master’s degree in theology in 1779 and served as a chaplain in Massachusetts from 1780–1783. He married his wife, Ruth, in 1781, and the two had a devoted relationship, often corresponding through letters when apart. Barlow’s first major published work was The Vision of Columbus (1787), an epic poem of roughly five thousand lines that traces the origins of the country and ultimately celebrates America as a prosperous place. Barlow aimed to create a distinctly American literary tradition and aspired to be the nation’s poet. While Barlow was certainly patriotic, he was also quite cosmopolitan. In 1788, he traveled to Europe to sell tracts of land for the Scioto Land Company. However, the company was fraudulent, and Barlow ended up in the middle of a controversy. While in Europe, he became involved with a number of political radicals, including Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Joseph Priestley, and his own political ideas began to shift. Over the course of his time in Europe, Barlow published several radical republican pieces, including A Letter to the National Convention of France (1791) and Advice to the Privileged Orders (1792–1793). After being bestowed honorary French citizenship, Barlow unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the French National Assembly in 1793. In 1796, as an American diplomat at Algiers, Barlow played a key role in negotiating the Treaty of Tripoli to end Barbary pirate attacks in North Africa. He returned to the United States in 1804 and worked on revising The Vision of Columbus into a longer work, The Columbiad (1807). Since Barlow wanted the poem to represent the glory of the country, he had it published in very elaborate and costly volumes. Barlow’s stay in the country was short-lived, as he became a minister to France in 1811, tasked with negotiating a peace treaty with Napoleon. Barlow traveled through Europe in difficult conditions, attempting to complete his task, but ended up dying of pneumonia.

General Overviews

The most comprehensive, yet still accessible, overview of Barlow’s life, works, and historical context is Buel 2011, appropriate for scholars and students alike. Ford 1971 and Woodress 1958, though older and not as in-depth, are nonetheless good introductory books for anyone hoping to learn more about Barlow. Bernstein 1985 and Hill 2012 offer accounts of Barlow with more attention to the politics of his time. Though Todd 1886 and Zunder 1934 are certainly dated, they do offer a more personalized view of Barlow as they reconstruct his story through his own words.

  • Bernstein, Samuel. Joel Barlow: A Connecticut Yankee in the Age of Revolution. Cliff Island, ME: Ultima Thule Press, 1985.

    Accounts for Barlow’s life and works within the context of the revolutionary movements of the 18th century. More so than other biographical works on Barlow, it considers the European political context that he was engaging with in many of his writings. Also stresses Barlow’s consistency in envisioning a unified America throughout the different periods of his writing career.

  • Buel, Richard, Jr. Joel Barlow: American Citizen in a Revolutionary World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

    Comprehensive consideration of Barlow’s life and career as a writer, political thinker, and diplomat. Aims to reposition Barlow as an important Revolutionary figure (both in terms of the American and French Revolutions) rather than the minor literary figure he is characterized as today. Useful starting place for those interested in studying Barlow. Available in print or electronically through subscription to Project Muse.

  • Ford, Arthur L. Joel Barlow. New York: Twayne, 1971.

    Short book that aims to provide a balance of biographical and historical context with literary criticism of Barlow’s works. Pays particular attention to the ideological shift that takes place in Barlow’s writing between his publication of The Vision of Columbus in 1787 and The Columbiad in 1807. Also includes examinations of several of Barlow’s shorter poems, like The Hasty Pudding, as well as Barlow’s political prose.

  • Hill, Peter P. Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.

    Biography that emphasizes Barlow’s diplomatic career and his evolving political interests over the course of his lifetime. Depicts Barlow as a visionary and a nation builder with noble ambitions for his country. Goes into great detail about the various missions Barlow participated in on behalf of the United States.

  • Todd, Charles. Life and Letters of Joel Barlow, LL.D., Poet, Statesman, and Philosopher. New York: Putnam, 1886.

    Earliest biography of Barlow, which aims to tell his story chiefly through his letters and papers. Includes some explanatory paragraphs and context, and bridges some gaps between writings, but primarily illustrates Barlow’s life through his own words. The letters and papers come from a collection accumulated by Barlow’s grandnephew, Lemuel G. Olmsted. Also available in its entirety through Google Books.

  • Woodress, James. A Yankee’s Odyssey: The Life of Joel Barlow. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1958.

    Fairly comprehensive biography of Barlow, although, as Buel 2011 points out, it overlooks Barlow’s entrepreneurial endeavors and downplays his republicanism. In spite of its shortcomings, offers a thorough overview of Barlow’s life and career.

  • Zunder, Theodore A. The Early Days of Joel Barlow, a Connecticut Wit: His Life and Works from 1754 to 1787. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934.

    Examination of Barlow’s early life and works based on his letters and manuscripts (both published and unpublished). Includes accounts of his family background, his schooling, his important relationships, his work as a chaplain, the context of his early publications, his literary ventures, and his interactions with publishers up to 1787. Also contains detailed studies of The Anarchiad and The Vision of Columbus.

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